Black Monday turned out to be a White Monday in St Louis. One day after the conclusion of the NFL’s regular season, seven head coaches and many more assistants lost their jobs. But at the Rams’ snow-swept practice facility in Earth City, a suburb of St Louis, the focus was on retaining staff, not replacing them.
There was never any question of a coaching change, the Rams having only appointed Jeff Fisher last January. But while he will review the team’s roster with general manager Les Snead over the coming weeks, Fisher made clear on Monday that he was hoping for an offseason of low turnover among the playing staff, too. “I told the team that I wanted every single unrestricted free agent back,” he said.
Whether the Rams can meet that request remains to be seen. There are agents to be negotiated with and a salary cap to consider. St Louis will also have a full draft class to accommodate – including two first-round picks after they traded away last year’s No2 pick to the Washington Redskins.
The fact Fisher is so keen to keep this group together speaks volumes, however. As he reminded reporters on Monday, the Rams were the youngest team in the league this year – with a remarkable 17 rookies on their 53-man roster. “The biggest improvement [you see in a player], in our experience, is that from year one to year two,” he said. “We would expect each one of [the rookies] to improve.”
Fisher could not declare himself fully satisfied with a year in which the team had failed to achieve his stated goal of reaching the postseason. Nevertheless, there were plenty of positives to take away. The Rams, who finished 7-8-1, had won five games more than a year previously. They did so despite facing the third-toughest schedule of any team; nine of St Louis’s 16 games were against opponents who finished up in the playoffs.
They also posted the best division record of any team in an increasingly competitive NFC West – losing only once in four games against the playoff-bound Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. On defense, their 52 sacks tied the Denver Broncos for most in the league – a statistic rendered all the more impressive when you consider that the Rams were rarely playing with the sort of big leads that force opponents into obvious passing situations.
It was unfortunate that this team should save their worst performance of the season, a 45-7 rout by the New England Patriots, for their visit to London, but even that experience had its upside. More than one player has cited it as a turning point, talking about how the team bonded on that trip. “I’ve said all along that except for the three hours of hell, it was great,” Fisher told reporters on Monday.
Now, though, it was time to look ahead. “We just had our final wrap-up meeting … and they’re never easy,” he said. “But this one was a little different in that we really felt like when the guys left the auditorium, they left with a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism for what’s ahead.”
That mood could be felt inside the locker room, even as players stuffed their belongings into cardboard moving boxes and black bin liners ready for their journeys home. Every player, from starting quarterback to third-string lineman, is required to empty their locker once the season ends. Team-mates say their goodbyes not knowing for certain who will be back next year. And yet a cheerfulness prevailed over any sense of melancholy.
“It’s tough,” said the defensive end Chris Long. “It’s part of the business but we go through a lot together as a team, then with some guys the reality is you’re not going to see them in a couple of months … But I love what we’re doing right now. I really do. I love the guys in this locker room.”
Of all the players whose futures are in doubt, none is more high-profile than the running back Steven Jackson. He sported a red sweater on Monday with the number 10,000 emblazoned across the front in bold type – that number representing the rushing yardage threshold he crossed this year. It was given to him as a gift by the rookie running back Terrance Ganaway.
Jackson – named team MVP by his peers after completing his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season – has one year left on his existing contract with the Rams, but both parties have the option to void it. He is set to earn $7m in 2013 – a figure which many consider to be too extravagant for a power back who will turn 30 in July.
But stood in front of his locker on Monday, Jackson insisted he would prefer to stay put. “I would hate to watch this organisation go on and be successful, which I believe they will, without me,” he said, before rejecting the suggestion from one journalist that he might enjoy getting to pick his next team. “What’s exciting actually is being part of something that was dead and now being part of it coming alive again.”
Jackson had stated his desire to finish his career in St Louis on several occasions before this season, but his enthusiasm for the new regime brought in by Fisher has only reinforced that desire. “This is the best I’ve felt about a head coach,” Jackson would add. “I have a lot of great respect and a lot of confidence in Coach Fisher.”
Senior players were asked what made this team different from the group that won seven games in 2010, only to go 2-14 a year later. “I think the way we won games this year,” said Sam Bradford. “My rookie year I feel like a lot of the games we won, we got out to a lead and coasted home.
“This year we’ve had to work for several of our wins, and we were able to win on the road, which is something we were only able to do once in my rookie year. So I just think this team going 7-8-1, I don’t know if ‘earned’ is the right word but it just feels like this team had a little toughness to it and was able to go out and get some wins that some people thought we woudn’t be able to do.”
More than any of that, though, Bradford drew confidence from the prospect of continuity in the team’s coaching staff. The quarterback has worked with three different offensive co-ordinators in his three years in the league so far.
“You have no idea,” he said when asked what it would mean for him to have Fisher and offensive co-ordinator Brian Schottenheimer back together running the same schemes next year. “For the first time since I’ve been here we’ll come back with the same staff, the same offense, and just be able to build on what we were able to do this year.”
For now, though, it is time to take a break. Each player has their own routine when it comes to the offseason, with some observing strict schedules for how many weeks they would take off and others saying they would wait to see how their body feels. Even Fisher will take a few days before reviewing his roster – creating some distance to prevent end-of-season emotion from clouding his judgement.
But on a day when so many of his fellow coaches lost their jobs, it was clear that Fisher was relishing his own. “I had a blast,” he said when asked to reflect on his first year back in the saddle after one year away from coaching. “I can’t wait to get started again … This was a great group of guys and they understand the difference between, or the importance of, one, having fun and two, preparing and playing hard. It was a great group.”
Not yet a winning group, however. The Rams, with their youthful roster, have laid some solid foundations. It is up to Fisher and Snead to make sure that they build on them.